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The education of Bertha Perez: How a UC Merced custodian's disenchantment led to a political awakening

The education of Bertha Perez: How a UC Merced custodian's disenchantment led to a political awakening
Bertha Perez, 50, never thought much about politics or workers' rights until she went to work as a custodian at UC Merced four years ago. (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

It's the third day of a three-day strike, and UC Merced custodian Bertha Perez is taking a break from a picket line at the university's unremarkable entrance, an intersection with stop lights.

Photos from other UC campuses this week have shown big crowds of striking service workers — members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — marching and chanting pro-labor slogans as they try to force the University of California back to the negotiating table.

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But here, at UC Merced, whose handful of big buildings rise from a flat expanse of farmland, the picket line is tiny, maybe two dozen workers and a few students. It's not a big-city-style show of force. Then again, a union sympathizer is banging relentlessly on a snare drum, so it's noisier than you'd expect.

UC Merced, with a student population that is a fraction of that found on other campuses, is the quiet UC.

The campus, which is north of Fresno and south of Stockton, has generated big headlines only a couple of times since it opened. In 2009, then-First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at its first full commencement, a major coup for a minor UC. In 2015, it reached a terrible modern milestone, when a student, inspired by ISIS, injured four people with a hunting knife before being killed by police.

On a normal day, the only noise you hear is the relentless pounding of construction equipment. The university is in the midst of a $1.1-billion expansion program, which will swell the student population and bring new schools of management and medicine.

Remarkably, fewer than 1% of its nearly 7,400 undergraduates are from outside California. At a moment where most UCs are struggling with diversity, 4.65% of its students are African-American and more than half are Latino.

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Wearing a wide-brimmed fieldworker's straw hat, a green T-shirt and jeans, Perez, 50, perches on the tailgate of a pickup truck to chat.

Four years ago, she says, after raising her family, she came to work at UC Merced. She works the graveyard shift cleaning buildings and earns $31,000 a year.

She has a high school diploma, and landing a job at the new university was a dream.

Soon, her excitement turned to disillusionment. The custodial staff was stretched too thin, she said, and supervisors were antagonistic.

Two years ago she became active in her union, and now she is a member of the executive and bargaining committees.

"I came here and I realized the people in charge here are the most oppressive people," she said. "There is a calculated effort on the part of the UC system to exploit the workers at a chronic level."

("UC Merced is a rapidly growing institution, and we are currently looking to hire additional custodial staff and others as our campus expands," said university spokesman James Leonard. "As with our students, we aim to provide a safe, welcoming environment for all of our employees, and we offer confidential resources for employees who feel they are not being treated fairly.")

University of California representatives say UC workers' pay and benefits are well above average for similar jobs. "That's not true," Perez said. "Merced County Schools makes more than us. They are comparing our wages to McDonald's workers' wages."

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She estimated that only half the approximately 100 unionized campus service workers honored the strike, a reflection of fear and economic anxiety among her colleagues, many of whom are single mothers and most of whom are immigrants with limited English.

"I can afford to speak up because I ain't afraid of losing my livelihood," said Perez, whose husband owns a business.

She puts on a show of being angry at workers who have crossed the picket line, but she doesn't really hold it against them. "I call them 'scabs,' " she said, "but I forgive them." She knows they can't afford to go three days without pay.

On Tuesday, she told me she yelled "Scab!" at one of her colleagues who drove past picketers en route to clean the university-owned off-campus home of UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, who earns about $400,000 a year. (Leonard said the chancellor's home, often used for university functions, is cleaned twice a month by UC Merced staff.)

"She can afford to hire her own housekeeper," said Perez, almost under her breath. Diverting university resources to pay for the housework of UC brass is hardly unique to UC Merced. Some years ago, AFSCME spokesman John de Los Angeles told me, UC Berkeley custodians were responsible for laundering and ironing the briefs of then-UC Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

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Workers are worried about wages, increased healthcare premiums and rising parking prices. They are also worried about the tendency of campus officials to save money by outsourcing good union jobs to contractors.

A bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) would force the UC Regents to create a database of work done by contractors in order to track how the practice displaces higher-paid university employees.

But once you spend time with the people who clean the toilets, cook the food and mow the lawns, you understand that a lot of their antagonism has to do with feeling disrespected.

Perez said she was shocked during a bargaining session to hear a University of California official say that custodial jobs are so hard on the body they are not meant to be lifetime work. De los Angeles was at that meeting and confirmed her recollection. "We were shocked," he said.

Food-service worker Carmen Chavez, 45, has worked at UC Merced since it opened. She is often asked to work as a cook, she said, even though cooks make $2 more an hour than she does. She has been accused of insubordination by a supervisor, she said, because he asked her to monitor the temperature of food, and when she asked for some training, he refused to provide it. She believes her role as a union captain has contributed to his antagonism.

"I used to come to work happy," she told me. "Everything was so calm and peaceful, but as the years went by it got harder, with less workers and more work, so now I get up every morning and my stomach hurts. How is my boss going to treat me? It's an ugly feeling to go work like that. Everybody is afraid."

A fourth-generation bilingual American, Perez said a Latino supervisor once instructed her to stop speaking Spanish.

Another time, at 2 a.m. during her work shift, she spied a different supervisor hiding behind a tree watching her, which made her so anxious she had trouble working.

Perez said it is common for two custodians to be tasked with cleaning a 101,000-square-foot building in a single night. That's about 30,000 more square feet than they are contractually obligated to clean. (Leonard said custodians sometimes have to clean more square footage than normal, but in those cases "they are not expected to provide the same level of service" or required to work overtime.)

Normally, you think of a university as a place where students experience a political awakening. It happens to custodians, too.

For most of her life, Perez was a lifelong Republican from a family of Republicans in the deep red San Joaquin Valley. She wasn't especially captivated by politics nor interested in workers' rights. But cleaning buildings at UC Merced has changed all that. Her union work has given her the kind of education you can't really get in a classroom.

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Two years ago, she even changed her voter registration.

"UC made me become a Democrat," she said, roaring with laughter.

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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